What’s the problem with Saoradh?


On 25 July, the fascist, ironically-named Irish Freedom Party, attempted to organise in West Belfast. Their first attempt was to try a stall. The Connolly Youth Movement, the Irish Republican Socialist Party, Lasair Dhearg and Saoradh swiftly mobilised and smashed their table up. The following day they attempted to organise again, by trying to recover the smashed up table. Lasair Dhearg – a socialist republican organisation based exclusively in Belfast – itself (hilariously) obstructed them.

Initially, the action received universal praise, but quickly came under fierce criticism from sections of the left for the inclusion of Saoradh. To be clear, we don’t know how many Saoradh members attended nor what they did, but even the notion of working with them is anathema for quite a significant section of people – and not for bad reasons.

Saoradh, for those uninitiated, is a socialist republican group alleged to be the political wing of the New Irish Republican Army. It falls firmly within the “dissident republican” church and continues to see armed struggle as the way forward for the completion of the Irish national liberation struggle.

Once the anti-fascist actions became public, in reality most of the criticism of the anti-fascist work came not from liberals nor even fascists, but from the left. I’ll be clear where I stand on the issue before continuing. Anti-fascism is mass politics. That said, all mass politics has small elements which organise autonomously for specific purposes on a temporary basis. The water charges movement in the South was a mass movement, but the bulk of the action was handfuls of people in local communities resisting water meter installation. So there is no contradiction here in seeing the absolute necessity of mass mobilisation and mass politics whilst also seeing the utility of the actions such as the ones on 25/26 July. As such, I support those actions.

The Problem

The issue at play here is Saoradh’s involvement. This is due to the fact that the New IRA shot and killed a journalist, Lyra McKee, in April 2019. Since the killing, what support Saoradh had mostly deserted it and the common sentiment is that Saoradh murdered Lyra McKee and therefore should be exiled from the left. Some even go so far as to call Saoradh a fascist organisation. As such, for Lasair Dhearg, the IRSP, and the CYM to work with Saoradh is a black mark against them and it undermines the anti-fascist work they’re doing. The counter-argument from some is that this is just liberal moralism and what’s important is that the fascists were driven off the streets.

Here, I will attempt to address the following points:

  1. Is the anger at Saoradh justified?
  2. Did Saoradh murder Lyra McKee?
  3. Whether they did or didn’t, does that matter?
  4. Are they fascist?
  5. Can leftists ever work with Saoradh?
  6. Republicanism, Loyalism and Anti-Fascism

The purpose of this article isn’t to try and one-up any other arguments but to genuinely reflect on what is a serious and sensitive topic, but also one of general political importance. I’ll answer the above points in turn.

Is The Anger Justified?

Unambiguously yes. Ireland is a small island, and the North of Ireland an even smaller community – the death of Lyra McKee at the hands of Saoradh deeply harmed a large number of people in the North and caused significant amounts of personal and emotional suffering. Lyra McKee was an activist in her community, a trade unionist and someone whose writing had touched many people.

Failure to appreciate that people will be angry at her needless death, will be upset by those who killed her, and will seek to act on those emotions in some capacity – is the sign of someone who completely lacks any kind of empathy. Regardless of which side of the overall political debate you sit on, this is something that must be appreciated and even if you are arguing a political point, you must be flexible to the emotional needs of those close to Lyra McKee or deeply impacted by her.

This is, however, different to those who cynically have used the same emotive rhetoric to talk about this situation despite never have spoken to Lyra McKee in their lives nor having heard of her in advance of her death. I don’t believe that they have a right to use her death for such underhanded political purposes. But in recognising that those people exist, it must never be used to dismiss the need to empathise and relate to the emotions of others and the rule of thumb here should be to do that in all cases regardless. In this regard, the response from some who are in support of the action and of Saoradh’s involvement in it, has been completely wrong.

Did Saoradh Murder Lyra McKee?

But that doesn’t end the conversation. Let’s be clear and unambiguous here; Saoradh killed Lyra McKee. Is that the same as murder? No.

Murder requires intent. The New IRA – the organisation which is directly responsible – issued an apology for the killing. They claim that their intended target was actually the PSNI, who were at that time carrying out a raid in Creggan (a predominantly Catholic neighbourhood in Derry) which led to a local riot. The killing was correctly roundly condemned by people in all communities and across the political spectrum. But it is also clear that the New IRA did not intend to kill her.

The counter-argument is that firing a weapon at anyone at anytime without a clear knowledge of what the potential consequences are (i.e. an innocent bystander being harmed or killed) is just as bad as intent, and therefore Saoradh are nonetheless murderers. Such an argument would likely stand up in a court of law should the perpetrator ever be tried (four people have been arrested under the Terrorism Act, including one person for her murder), but that isn’t the same as a moral judgement which is at the crux of this conversation.

Does It Matter?

Personally, while I believe the intent of her killers does matter from a moral standpoint, I am not in a position to definitively declare for either side of the argument. I also don’t have a right in any capacity to argue that people’s emotional reactions are unjustified – I didn’t know Lyra McKee. The fundamental reality is that her death was the consequence – unintended as it was – of a fatally flawed political strategy pursued by Saoradh. All of this is obviously little comfort for those who knew her. But it does have political implications.

Ultimately, whether Saoradh intended to kill Lyra McKee or not is largely irrelevant to how justified or not their critics are. They are still justified in their anger at her killing. They are still justified in being upset at her killers. They are fully justified in having an attitude of complete contempt for Saoradh and to reject the idea that they or others should work with them. This fact, though, does not resolve the political questions presented by the debate. More on that later.

Is Saoradh Fascist?

No. Whilst this is the opinion of a tiny minority in the debate, the simple reality is that Saoradh are not fascists. I’m saying this not because of any personal love for Saoradh (I don’t like them at all, actually) but because having a rigorous understanding of fascism is quite important for those of us on the left and for activists.

Fascism is a reactionary movement. It has contempt for any kind of democratic norms, it trades in ethnic or religious (or ethnoreligious) purity, seeks to smash the workers’ movement and fundamentally aligns itself with capitalism and imperialism. It is a movement which is supported by a section of the ruling elite as that elite attempts to protect itself in times of severe crisis. It tends to have its mass base in more disenfranchised middle class communities, small business owners etc. Fascism can manifest itself in many different ways compared to the fascism we know historically in the form of Hitler, Mussolini, Franco and so on, but it does have some important common features.

Saoradh, for all its flawed political methods, simply does not fit the bill.

Can The Left Work With Saoradh?

Here we get to the crux of the argument in reality, and it’s a political question. It’s a political question because there is no indication that the killing of Lyra McKee was a conscious part of Saoradh’s political strategy – and therefore we have to consider their politics as a whole and how to orientate towards it.

Saoradh comes from a tradition of “armed struggle republicanism”. They consider themselves socialists. Personally, I have no support for their delusional armed struggle. This is not out of any fetish for “peaceful” politics. There is simply no basis in society for them to wage an armed struggle. They have no popular support. They don’t have mass base in working class communities. It’s also deeply alienating to the Northern Protestant working class, which regardless of your position on achieving the unification of Ireland are an important population that socialists want to win over to our vision for society, not drive away. Even if you were to believe that at some point an armed struggle was necessary, the conditions in Irish society are simply not present for one. At best, Saoradh are an absurdly adventurist organisation which is clumsily holding to outmoded traditions because it doesn’t have any other way forward for its political vision.

It’s their adventurism that led them to bomb parts of Derry – thankfully resulting in nothing more than property damage. It’s their adventurism that leads them to stockpile guns and ammunition, making them a target for state repression. It’s their adventurism that leads them to try and use it, leading to the deaths of people like Lyra McKee. Regardless of the good intentions of anyone, tactics and strategy matter and they have consequences. We can’t divorce the two.

From a personal perspective, I want absolutely nothing to do with them. I also don’t think others should have anything to do with them if they can help it. But we also need to think about the bigger picture here, and what “nothing to do with them” actually means in practice. Concretely, there have been several significant anti-fascist mobilisations in Dublin in the past year. Saoradh has been present at most of them. Should Saoradh attempt to attend an anti-fascist mobilisation, is it our responsibility to drive them off? How? Physical force? I would propose that people who suggest that approach actually try it and see how it works out – simply put, it wont go well. Regardless of what we think of Saoradh personally, that would be political madness. Should that policy extend to Sinn Féin, who have the blood of many more people on their hands? Has sufficient time passed for the damage they’ve done to people to have healed? Hardly. This is a fact regardless of what you think of the Provisional IRA campaign.

The fact of the matter is that as wrong as the tactics used by armed struggle Republicans is in the current period, there is a community experiencing national oppression on this island, and it will fight back in many different ways – including ways which are counter-productive and reckless. Organisations like Saoradh reflect such trends within Catholic working class communities and we shouldn’t ignore that either.

We also have to be conscious that anti-fascism is potentially dangerous work. The fascist movement is a dangerous movement. Saoradh being involved in elements of anti-fascist work makes a positive contribution in this regard – it is concretely able to out-muscle fascists in a physical way and physically drive them off the streets. Such actions genuinely contribute to the protection of minority populations on this island.

At the same time, Saoradh’s name is fundamentally toxic. The division its involvement has caused on the left makes that clear enough – it would be even more obvious when put out to the broader working class. Concretely, we have to ask ourselves if Saoradh being involved damages anti-fascism or helps it? That is a political question determined by your orientation. As I said previously, I believe that anti-fascism is mass politics. You cannot do anti-fascism alone with squads of 10 people walking around smashing tables. You need people to mobilise in their thousands or tens of thousands, to create a social narrative (a hegemony, if you will) against any elements of fascism in our society. The smaller actions are part of the process of demoralising fascists, but the mass action is what will win us the war. If you don’t have an orientation towards the mass, then the question is simple, but if you do then we need to rethink it.

I wont claim to have the final answer on this question. It requires a wide ranging debate. In my opinion, if Saoradh are principled anti-fascists and they have the level of self-awareness to know that their name would damage the movement, then they should lie low and they shouldn’t crudely attempt to use anti-fascist work to rehabilitate themselves. Engage in anti-fascism if they want, but don’t do it as Saoradh. They would likely feel justifiably indignant at the suggestion, but you can’t sow the seeds and then complain about what you reap. If they were to consciously promote themselves through anti-fascist work, knowing the damage it can do, then they would be putting their own interests ahead of the movement – a textbook example of sectarianism.

Republicanism, Loyalism, and anti-Fascism

Peripheral to this argument is an interesting point about the role of Republicanism in anti-fascist work. Some have argued that Republicanism is divisive in the North of Ireland and therefore if we want to build a mass anti-fascist movement we cannot allow Republicanism into it. This essentially counterposes Republicanism with anti-fascism.

Republican ideas hold sway among the majority of the working class on this island, and overwhelmingly so among the youth. The nascent Irish fascist movement is well aware of this fact and is increasingly trying to trade in Republican rhetoric – including revolutionary socialist republican symbols such as the Starry Plough. Rather than retreat from Republicanism for fear of alienating the Northern Protestant minority on this island, the left is faced with the danger of conceding the heritage of one of Ireland’s revolutionary traditions to the far right.

Anti-fascism isn’t an activity exclusive to Republicans and it should not be treated as such. But Republicanism does have an anti-fascist heritage going back a century to its struggle against the Blueshirts, culminating in socialist republicans joining the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War against fascism. In the period since, Republicans have always been on the frontlines in the fight against the far right on this island, and it would be a sectarian error to attempt to reject that in the name of some abstract cross-community unity. Loyalism cannot claim the same heritage, and throughout the Troubles and right up to today, Loyalist forces such as the UVF and UDA have maintained relations with fascist groups internationally, but in particular (and unsurprisingly) British ones. The affinity that many Loyalists feel for semi-fascist regimes such as the ethnoreligious terror state of Israel is no accident. Contrast this with Republicanism which is rooted in democratic national aspirations and a struggle against oppression. This isn’t to say that there are no problems with Republicanism, but there can be no equivocation between the two on this issue.

Every attempt should be made to make sure anti-fascism is broad based and encompasses all communities on this island. That means that an orientation to organised labour and workplaces is essential. It would be just as much of an error to believe that anti-fascist work isn’t worth pursuing in Northern Protestant communities because of the ideology and history of Loyalism – in reality, it highlights just how essential it is. But we also need to be conscious of the historical traditions of Irish anti-fascism and be aware that we cannot rewrite history. The times we live in are the product of past events and struggles – Republicanism is just as much part of the anti-fascist movement as the rest of us, and it has every right to be.

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